Are Denisonians Open to Hearing the Other Side?

[This is part 1 of a 3 part series about minority status and democratic inclusion on campus]

By Paul A. Djupe

“Complaints are everywhere heard that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not by the rules of justice and the rights of the minority, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” Given debates about Denison party culture, DCGA funding, greek life status, and visiting speakers (especially conservative ones), these words could have been written about Denison (and have been at least here, here, and here). But the opening quote was written by James Madison in his Federalist #10 in 1787. Democracies are persistently plagued by concerns over inclusion, openness to ideas, and factious politics. Denison is no different, or is it? Are Denison students willing to hear the other side?

A survey from October 2015 included questions that asked about the value of hearing both sides, that the clash of ideas is essential for both democratic process as well as social inquiry (in the vein of John Dewey for those keeping score). The distribution of scores from this index (see note 1) are shown by class year in Figure 1.

Figure 1 – Support for Democratic Norms – the Value of Exposure to Disagreement – by Class Year
dem-norms-by-classyear

There is absolutely no difference across class years, which is curious – can we grow to be “discerning moral agents” without greater commitment to hearing diverse alternatives? On the upside, support for the value of the clash of perspectives is reasonably high across the board. Or, put differently, the support Denison students give to democratic norms is the exact same level as I found in an adult sample in March 2016 (.69 on the same scale using the same items). Even the most highly educated respondents in that adult sample only reached .72 – insignificantly different from Denison’s score.

But there is still considerable variation in support that we can seek to explain. Among the variables I used, several tapped status and experience with exposure to difference. For instance, the survey asked what percent (0-100) of Denison students agreed with their position on several hot campus issues last fall. This measure of majoritarianism (mean=56%) suggests considerable disagreement on campus, but it was not connected to expressing the value of such exposure. Neither was explicit disagreement among named discussion partners regarding campus issues. It is notable, given public statements of it, that campus involvement was not tethered to democratic norms; involvement may have other benefits, but it does not differentiate students in this way in these data. Perhaps it is not surprising that campus organizations are comfortable social niches and not the tiny debating societies social theorists wish them to be.

Instead, Figure 2 shows what was connected to variation in democratic norms and some of the results are surprising. There was no difference among partisans except that self-identified strong Republicans were more supportive of the clash of perspectives. Expressing a desire for people to hear diverse voices makes sense from a tiny minority group on campus – “strong” Republicans constitute just 2% of the campus (though 22 percent in total identify as Republican). This is particularly important in the face of the partisan distribution of the campus (~57 percent Democratic) and the perception of a left-leaning faculty. Though we should not oversell the difference, it likely signals the desire for cover, for recognition, for the ability to speak their minds without fear of reprisals.

Figure 2 – Support for Democratic Norms by Status Variables

demnorms-by-groups

It might also be surprising that men are more supportive of democratic norms than women. Status likely plays a role here as well – if some views challenge women’s equality (see the recent hashtag campaign to repeal the 19th Amendment?), then we can understand why support for the inclusion of all voices might be more tepid.

Those students who said they had completed a critical thinking assignment (see note 2) were more likely to support democratic norms. Given the definition of critical thinking used here, this is precisely the expected outcome.

Does expressing the value of inclusion matter when it comes to exposure oneself? Does the rubber hit the road? The survey asked, “How likely would you be to attend a lecture on Denison’s campus given by someone with a political ideology that is different from your own?” The mean response indicates a bare majority willingness to attend and certainly very little enthusiasm for it. It is not surprising, though, that higher democratic norm support leads to greater willingness to attend such an event (about 25% more through the full range of the variable and by 10% for +/- one standard deviation)(see note 3).

Minority status can be a schoolhouse for instilling the value of democratic inclusion and college campuses can allow for more or less gentle societal inversions to take place. It is worrisome, though, that such experiences may be linked to greater support for rights applications without building enthusiasm for continued exposure to diverse viewpoints. This can lead to calls for lopsided public presentations or uproars about bringing the other side to campus that do little to build society-wide coalitions, which do nothing to advance the democratic process.

Stay tuned for further investigations of minority status and engagement with difference in the coming weeks. The next post will investigate “political courage.”

Paul Djupe is a local cyclist who happens to have taught political science at Denison since before the Harry Potter series. You can learn more about his work at pauldjupe.com.


Notes.

1. The items assessed agreement on a 5 point scale with the following three statements: (1) You can’t have a democracy without political opposition. (2) You really can’t be sure whether an opinion is correct or not unless people are free to argue against it. (3) Unless many points of view are presented, there is little chance that the truth can ever be known.

2. The question asked “Thinking carefully now about the course assignments you’ve had to complete at Denison, have you been explicitly asked to compare the ethical, logical, or empirical value of at least two different perspectives (beyond your own) in one assignment?” The response options were: No, I have not been asked to do this. [And I combined the following two:] Yes, I have been asked to do this once. Yes, I have been asked to do this many times.

3. In a more inclusive regression model, women and science majors are less likely to attend. While not significant, Strong Republicans indicate a lower willingness to attend, which supports the idea that their support for democratic norms is a plea for equal representation. In neither investigation did race play a role.

4 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s